Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult

  Jordan McAfee walked back to the table where Peter sat and picked up a piece of paper. "Do you remember what day Peter was pantsed, Mr. Girard?"


  "Let me show you, then, Defense Exhibit One. Do you recognize this?"

  He handed the piece of paper to Drew, who took it and shrugged.

  "This is a piece of email that you received on February third, two days before Peter was pantsed in the Sterling High School cafeteria. Can you tell us who sent it to you?"

  "Courtney Ignatio."

  "Was it a letter that had been written to her?"

  "No," Drew said. "It had been written to Josie."

  "By whom?" McAfee pressed.


  "What did he say?"

  "It was about Josie. And how he was into her."

  "You mean romantically."

  "I guess," Drew said.

  "What did you do with that email?"

  Drew looked up. "I spammed it out to the student body."

  "Let me get this straight," McAfee said. "You took a very private note that didn't belong to you, a piece of paper with Peter's deepest, most secret feelings, and you forwarded this to every kid at your school?"

  Drew was silent.

  Jordan McAfee slapped the email down on the railing in front of him. "Well, Drew?" he said. "Was it a good joke?"


  Drew Girard was sweating so much that he couldn't believe all those people weren't pointing at him. He could feel the perspiration running between his shoulder blades and making looped circles beneath his arms. And why not? That bitch of a prosecutor had left him in the hot seat. She'd let him get skewered by this dickwad attorney, so that now, for the rest of his life, everyone would think he was an asshole when he--like every other kid in Sterling High--had just been having a little fun.

  He stood up, ready to bolt out of the courtroom and possibly run all the way to the town boundary of Sterling--but Diana Leven was walking toward him. "Mr. Girard," she said, "I'm not quite finished."

  He sank back into his seat, deflated.

  "Have you ever called anyone other than Peter Houghton names?"

  "Yes," he said warily.

  "It's what guys do, right?"


  "Did anyone you ever called names ever shoot you?"


  "Ever seen anyone other than Peter Houghton be pantsed?"

  "Sure," Drew said.

  "Did any of those other kids who were pantsed ever shoot you?"


  "Ever spammed anyone else's email out as a joke?"

  "Once or twice."

  Diana folded her arms. "Any of those folks ever shoot you?"

  "No, ma'am," he said.

  She headed back to her seat. "Nothing further."


  Dusty Spears understood kids like Drew Girard, because he had once been one. The way he saw it, bullies either were good enough to get football scholarships to Big Ten schools, where they could make the business connections to play on golf courses for the rest of their lives, or they busted their knees and wound up teaching gym at the middle school.

  He was wearing a collared shirt and tie, and that pissed him off, because his neck still looked like it had when he was a tight end at Sterling in '88, even if his abs didn't. "Peter wasn't a real athlete," he said to the prosecutor. "I never really saw him outside of class."

  "Did you ever see Peter getting picked on by other kids?"

  Dusty shrugged. "The usual locker room stuff, I guess."

  "Did you intervene?"

  "I probably told the kids to knock it off. But it's part of growing up, right?"

  "Did you ever hear of Peter threatening anyone else?"

  "Objection," said Jordan McAfee. "That's a hypothetical question."

  "Sustained," the judge replied.

  "If you had heard that, would you have intervened?"


  "Sustained. Again."

  The prosecutor didn't miss a beat. "But Peter didn't ask for help, did he?"


  She sat back down, and Houghton's lawyer stood up. He was one of those smarmy guys that rubbed Dusty the wrong way--probably had been a kid who could barely field a ball, but smirked when you tried to teach him how, as if he already knew he'd be making twice as much money as Dusty one day, anyway. "Is there a bullying policy in place at Sterling High?"

  "We don't allow it."

  "Ah," McAfee said dryly. "Well, that's refreshing to hear. So let's say you witness bullying on an almost daily basis in a locker room right under your nose . . . according to the policy, what are you supposed to do?"

  Dusty stared at him. "It's in the policy. Obviously I don't have it right in front of me."

  "Luckily, I do," McAfee said. "Let me show you what's been marked as Defense Exhibit Two. Is this the bullying policy for Sterling High School?"

  Reaching out, Dusty took a look at the printed page. "Yes."

  "You get this in your teacher handbook every year in August, correct?"


  "And this is the most recent version, for the academic year of 2006-?"

  "I assume so," Dusty said.

  "Mr. Spears, I want you to go through that policy very carefully--all two pages--and show me where it tells you what to do if you, as a teacher, witness bullying."

  Dusty sighed and began to scan the papers. Usually, when he got the handbook, he shoved it in a drawer with his take-out menus. He knew the important things: don't miss an in-service day; submit curriculum changes to the department heads; refrain from being alone in a room with a female student. "It says right here," he said, reading, "that the Sterling School Board is committed to providing a learning and working environment that ensures the personal safety of its members. Physical or verbal threats, harassment, hazing, bullying, verbal abuse, and intimidation will not be tolerated." Glancing up, Dusty said, "Does that answer your question?"

  "No, actually, it doesn't. What are you, as a teacher, supposed to do if a student bullies another student?"

  Dusty read further. There was a definition of hazing, of bullying, of verbal abuse. There was mention of a teacher or school administrator being reported to, if the behavior had been witnessed by another student. But there was no set of rules, no chain of events to be set in motion by the teacher or administrator himself.

  "I can't find it in here," he said.

  "Thank you, Mr. Spears," McAfee replied. "That'll be all."


  It would have been simple for Jordan McAfee to notice up his intent to call Derek Markowitz to testify, as he was one of the only character witnesses Peter Houghton had, in terms of friends. But Diana knew he had value for the prosecution because of what he had seen and heard--not because of his loyalties. She'd seen plenty of friends rat each other out over the years she'd been in this business.

  "So, Derek," Diana said, trying to make him comfortable, "you were Peter's friend."

  She watched him lock eyes with Peter and try to smile. "Yes."

  "Did you two hang out after school sometimes?"


  "What sort of things did you like to do?"

  "We were both really into computers. Sometimes we'd play video games, and then we started to learn programming so we could create a few of our own."

  "Did Peter ever write any video games without you?" Diana asked.


  "What happened when he finished?"

  "We'd play them. But there are also websites where you can upload your game and have other people rate them for you."

  Derek looked up just then and noticed the television cameras in the back of the room. His jaw dropped, and he froze.

  "Derek," Diana said. "Derek?" She waited for him to focus on her. "Let me hand you a CD-ROM. It's marked State's Exhibit 302. . . . Can you tell me what it is?"

  "That's Peter's most recent game."

  "What's it called?"

  "What's it about?"

  "It's one of those games where you go around shooting the bad guys."

  "Who are the bad guys in this game?" Diana asked.

  Derek darted a glance at Peter again. "They're jocks."

  "Where does the game take place?"

  "In a school," Derek said.

  From the corner of her eye, Diana could see Jordan shifting in his chair. "Derek, were you in school the morning of March 6, 2007?"


  "What was your first-period class that morning?"

  "Honors Trig."

  "How about second period?" Diana asked.


  "Then where did you go?"

  "I had gym third period, but my asthma was pretty bad, so I had a doctor's note to excuse me from class. Since I finished my work early in English, I asked Mrs. Eccles if I could go to my car to get it."

  Diana nodded. "Where was your car parked?"

  "In the student parking lot, behind the school."

  "Can you show me on this diagram which door you used to leave the school at the end of second period?" Derek reached toward the easel and pointed to one of the rear doors of the school. "What did you see when you went outside?"

  "Uh, a lot of cars."

  "Any people?"

  "Yes," Derek said. "Peter. It looked like he was getting something out of the backseat of his car."

  "What did you do?"

  "I went over to say hi. I asked him why he was late to school, and he stood up and looked at me in a weird way."

  "Weird? What do you mean?"

  Derek shook his head. "I don't know. Like he didn't know who I was for a second."

  "Did he say anything to you?"

  "He said, 'Go home. Something's about to happen.'"

  "Did you think that was unusual?"

  "Well, it was a little bit Twilight Zone . . ."

  "Had Peter ever said anything like that to you before?"

  "Yes," Derek said quietly.


  Jordan objected, as Diana had expected, and Judge Wagner overruled it, as she'd hoped. "A few weeks before," Derek said, "the first time we were playing Hide-n-Shriek."

  "What did he say?" Derek looked down and mumbled a response. "Derek," Diana said, coming closer, "I have to ask you to speak up."

  "He said, 'When this really happens, it's going to be awesome.'"

  A hum rose in the gallery, like a swarm of bees. "Did you know what he meant by that?"

  "I thought . . . I thought he was kidding," Derek said.

  "The day of the shooting when you found Peter in the parking lot, did you see what he was doing in the car?"

  "No . . ." Derek broke off, clearing his throat. "I just sort of laughed off what he said and told him I had to go to class."

  "What happened next?"

  "I went back into the school through the same door and walked to the office to get my gym note signed by Mrs. Whyte, the secretary. She was talking to another girl, who was signing out of school for an orthodontist appointment."

  "And then?" Diana asked.

  "Once she left, Mrs. Whyte and I heard an explosion."

  "Did you see where it was coming from?"


  "What happened after that?"

  "I looked at the computer screen on Mrs. Whyte's desk," Derek said. "It was scrolling, like, a message."

  "What did it say?"

  "Ready or not . . . here I come." Derek swallowed. "We heard these little pops, like lots of champagne bottles, and Mrs. Whyte grabbed me and dragged me into the principal's office."

  "Was there a computer in that office?"


  "What was on the screen?"

  "Ready or not . . . here I come."

  "How long were you in the office?"

  "I don't know. Ten, twenty minutes. Mrs. Whyte tried to call the police, but she couldn't. There was something wrong with the phone."

  Diana faced the bench. "Judge, at this time, the prosecution would like to move State's Exhibit 303 in full, and we ask that it be published to the jury." She watched the deputy wheel out a television monitor with a computer attached, so that the CD-ROM could be inserted.

  HIDE-N-SHRIEK, the screen proclaimed. CHOOSE YOUR FIRST WEAPON!

  A 3-D animated boy wearing horn-rimmed glasses and a golf shirt crossed the screen and looked down over an array of crossbows, Uzis, AK-47s, and biological weapons. He reached for one, and then with his other hand, he loaded up on ammunition. There was a close-up of his face: freckles; braces; fever in his eyes.

  Then the screen went blue and started scrolling.

  Ready or not, it read. Here I come.


  Derek liked Mr. McAfee. He wasn't much to look at, but he had the hottest babe of a wife. Plus, he was probably the only other person in Sterling High who wasn't related to Peter and still felt sorry for him.

  "Derek," the lawyer said, "you've been friends with Peter since sixth grade, right?"


  "You spent a lot of time with him both in and outside school."


  "Did you ever see Peter getting picked on by other kids?"

  "All the time," Derek said. "They'd call us fags and homos. They'd give us wedgies. When we walked down the hall, they'd trip us or slam us into lockers. Things like that."

  "Did you ever talk to a teacher about this?"

  "I used to, but that just made it worse. I got creamed for being a tattletale."

  "Did you and Peter ever talk about getting picked on?"

  Derek shook his head. "No. It was kind of nice to have someone around who just got it, you know?"

  "How often was this happening . . . once a week?"

  He snorted. "More like once a day."

  "Just you and Peter?"

  "No, there are others."

  "Who did most of the bullying?"

  "The jocks," Derek said. "Matt Royston, Drew Girard, John Eberhard . . ."

  "Any girls participate in the bullying?"

  "Yeah, the ones who looked at us like we were bugs on a windshield," Derek said. "Courtney Ignatio, Emma Alexis, Josie Cormier, Maddie Shaw."

  "So what do you do when someone's slamming you into a locker?" Mr. McAfee asked.

  "You can't fight back, because you're not as strong as they are, and you can't stop it . . . so you just kind of wait it out."

  "Would it be fair to say that this group you named--Matt and Drew and Courtney and Emma and the rest--went after one person more than any others?"

  "Yes," Derek said. "Peter."

  Derek watched Peter's attorney sit back down next to him, and then the lady lawyer rose and started speaking again. "Derek, you said you were bullied, too."


  "You never helped Peter put together a pipe bomb to blow up someone's car, did you?"


  "You never helped Peter hack into the phone lines and computers at Sterling High, so that once the shooting started, no one could call for help, did you?"

  "No," Derek said.

  "You never stole guns and hoarded them in your bedroom, did you?"


  The prosecutor took a step closer. "You never put together a plan, like Peter, to go through the school, systematically killing the people who had hurt you the most, did you, Derek?"

  Derek turned to Peter, so that he could look him square in the eye when he answered. "No," he said. "But sometimes I wish I had."


  From time to time, over the course of her career as a midwife, Lacy had run into a former patient at the grocery store or the bank or on a bike trail. They'd present their babies--now three, seven, fifteen years old. Look at what a great job you did, they'd sometimes say, as if bringing the child into the world had anything to do with who he became.

  She did not know quite what to feel when confronted with Josie Cormier. They'd spent the day playing hangman--the irony of which, given her son's fate, wasn't lost on her.
Lacy had known Josie as a newborn, but also as a little girl and as a playmate for Peter. Because of this, there had been a point where she had viscerally hated Josie in a way that even Peter never seemed to, for being cruel enough to leave her son behind. Josie may not have initiated the teasing that Peter suffered over his middle and high school years, but she didn't intervene either, and in Lacy's book, that had made her equally responsible.

  As it turned out, though, Josie Cormier had grown into a stunning young woman, one who was quiet and thoughtful and not at all like the vacuous, material girls who trolled the Mall of New Hampshire or encompassed the social elite of Sterling High--girls Lacy had always likened to black widow spiders, looking for someone they could destroy. Lacy had been surprised when Josie had peppered her with polite questions about Peter: Was he nervous about the trial? Was it hard, being in jail? Did he get picked on there? You should send him a letter, Lacy had suggested to her. I'm sure he'd like to hear from you.

  But Josie had let her glance slide away, and that was when Lacy realized that Josie had not really been interested in Peter; she had only been trying to be kind to Lacy.

  When court recessed for the day, the witnesses were told they could go home, provided they did not watch the news or read the papers or speak about the case. Lacy excused herself to go to the bathroom while she waited for Lewis, who'd be fighting the crush of reporters that would surely be packing the lobby outside the courtroom. She had just come out of the stall and was washing her hands when Alex Cormier stepped inside.

  The racket in the hallway rode in on her heels, then cut off abruptly as the door shut. Their eyes met in the long mirror over the bank of sinks. "Lacy," Alex murmured.

  Lacy straightened and reached for a paper towel to dry her hands. She didn't know what to say to Alex Cormier. She could barely even imagine that at one point, she'd had anything to say to her.

  There was a spider plant in Lacy's midwifery office that had been dying by degrees, until the secretary moved a stack of books that had been blocking a window. She had forgotten to move the plant, though, and half the shoots started straining toward the light, growing in an unlikely sideways direction that seemed to defy gravity. Lacy and Alex were like that plant: Alex had moved off on a different course, and Lacy--well, she hadn't. She'd withered up, wilted, gotten tangled in her own best intentions.

  "I'm sorry," Alex said. "I'm sorry you have to go through this."

  "I'm sorry, too," Lacy replied.

  Alex looked like she was going to speak again, but she didn't, and Lacy had run out of conversation. She started out of the bathroom to find Lewis, but Alex called her back. "Lacy," she said. "I remember."

  Lacy turned around to face her.

  "He used to like the peanut butter on the top half of the bread and the marshmallow fluff on the bottom." Alex smiled a little. "And he had the longest eyelashes I'd ever seen on a little boy. He could find anything I'd dropped--an earring, a contact lens, a straight pin--before it got lost permanently."

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